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A teacher at heart (cont.)

Posted: Friday August 11, 2006 2:35PM; Updated: Friday August 11, 2006 3:15PM
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To hear the 26-year-old, Columbia, Mo.-born Edwards tell it, even as a teacher he's always been in the driver's seat, just in a dumpier car -- not the No. 99 Office Depot Fusion but a '90 Mazda 323 Protégé given to him by a sympathetic friend. To help underwrite his Cup dream, Edwards worked for eight months as a substitute teacher, often traveling by Mazda from one Columbia middle school to the next. And always parking out of site. ("He had hit multiple deer with it," Edwards says of the Protégé's previous owner.)

Subbing offered some perks. The flexible hours (just two days a week) not only allowed Edwards time to race, but also attend school at the University of Missouri. (He's two semesters shy of his undergrad.) Automated messages helped take the sting out of recurring 6 a.m. phone calls. "You didn't have to come up with any excuses if you didn't want to go," says Edwards, who taught grades 1-8. "They'd have that voice like ... [Edwards' Missourah twang drops sotto roboto] 'There is a English ... eighth grade ... Parkway Middle School ...' and then you'd just get up and go to the school."

Fittingly, he'd also begin his Nextel Cup career as a substitute, filling in for Jeff Burton midway through the '04 season before ending the year with five top-10 finishes. Eighteen more helped vault him to the head of the class in '05.

But after beginning this season as the preseason valedictorian, Edwards finds himself in danger of not reaching the podium at all this year. It seems if there were a season in which Edwards' experience as a substitute could be instructive, it is this one. His losing his crew chief, Bob Osborne, to teammate Jamie McMurray, for example, might harbor a lesson in sharing. "Whether it's in first grade or Nextel Cup, you've got to do what it takes to get along," he says.

His run-in with Tony Stewart might offer some insight in handling a schoolyard bully: take the high road. Two weeks ago at Pocono, the raging two-time Cup champ slammed his car into that of rookie Clint Bowyer, spinning Bowyer into Edwards and sending them to the back of the pack. Edwards later retaliated by slamming his car into Stewart's on the way into the pits. Some words were exchanged -- but Stewart got in the deepest dig. "Carl, I think is starting to show everybody that he's the Eddie Haskell of NASCAR," said Stewart, equating Edwards to the mischievous brown-noser from Leave It To Beaver.

On Thursday Edwards' was eager to show how much he had outgrown the comparison, offering a response that was more Ward Cleaver. He let loose a chuckle, then turned serious. "I really don't want to talk about Tony Stewart," he said sternly, almost as if threatening this reporter with detention. Guess when you think about it, Edwards' new job isn't much different from his old one: At the end of the day he's still working with kids.